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Adventure Is Where You Find It

Posted by MDugard Jul 19, 2006

Adventure, Amelia Earhart once said, is where you find it. It's also been said that a journey is not an adventure until something goes wrong. The last 24 hours have seen a little bit of both for Austin and I: a little found adventure, a few things going wrong, and another dose of surrealism to remind us that the Tour gods have a very twisted sense of humor. It all began when I Ieft the pressroom late, traipsing across a muddy L'Alpe D'Huez pasture and through a maze of campers in the fading evening light. The mountaintop was settling down after a frenzied day of cycling. I was tired and chilled to the bone. All I wanted was to make it to dinner before the restaurant closed, get a hot shower, and hit the rack with a good book. Dinner in the Club Med dining room was spectacular, spicy curried lamb followed by a cheese plate and a blueberry tart. Six Tour teams were staying in the hotel, so with a sweeping glance around the restaurant it was possible to see Floyd Landis, George Hincapie, Andreas Kloden, and various other lesser lights. For a cycling fan it was all very cool to be a part of, particularly because it was so relaxed. The Tour causes the riders to put their guard up, because the minute they leave the team bus they're inundated by autograph seekers and the media. But at the Club Med La Sarenne, it was understood that the press and riders would mingle only on a social basis, and the autograph seekers were kept out of the hotel lobby by large, scowling security guards. So on the way out of dining room, Chris Brewer, Discovery Team's communications guru, asked Austin and I if we wanted to go out on the town. I have to say that in all the Tours I've covered, I've never had a single night out. There's just too much going on, and that time of personal space back in the room at the end of the day is priceless. Brewer, however, is a compelling figure. Austin and I were soon on our way to The Igloo, where rumor had it there was a party going on. The Igloo turned out to be a smoky disco (I actually expected to see a building shaped like an igloo, but it was a long cellar of a place)  Thick smoke, the kind that you smell coming out of your pores in the morning, filled the darkened room. But soon I started making out the faces and realized that pretty much a who's who of people I knew from the Tour -- press, security, Grand Mere girls, sponsor reps, and on -- were there. The rugged security force seemed to enjoy dancing with each other very much, so much so that I thought the Igloo might actually be a gay bar. Brewer filled me: Nowadays, two men dancing together in Europe is somewhat fashionable. Lance Armstrong and Jake Gyllenhaal made their way in around midnight, both wearing baseball caps pushed down tight on their heads. Women said Armstrong's name in heavily accented French as he walked through the crowd, hitting the second syllable harder than the first. As the two men found a spot to talk in a back corner, Brewer shifted into a different mode, setting up a defensive perimeter to keep the crowd back and give them a little space. I had a short conversation with Armstrong, and then headed back out in the crisp night air alone and walked across the mountain to the Club Med. Six hours later the blue Volvo was on the road. So far, so good. I found a promising shortcut down a narrow country lane knnown as the D926. Apparently, many other people here at the Tour also have access to Michelin maps, because soon it became clear that pretty much everyone in France was trying to take the D926 detour. Campers and cars and cyclists soon clogged that winding mountain road, and we were way too committed to turn back. An hour later, where the D926 teed into the Tour course, the traffic reached critical mass. All those people trying to fit on one little road led to one monstrous cluster...er, traffic jam. Most frustrating of all, we could see the course up ahead. All we had to do was make it up to the gendarmes and have them wave us through, and we would leave the crowds behind. The Tour is a race of tradition, and the venerable D926 bore witness to past Tours, even as its madness was very much in the here and now. Old painted slogans on the tarmac still existed from 2000, when the race used the D926 to access the Col de la Croix-de-Fer. It was infuriating and frustrating, particularly when some drivers gave up on ever moving, parked their car in the center of the road, and then walked off to find a viewing spot. "It's actually a very Zen experience," Austin said, as a reminder to himself to take it all in stride. I tried the Zen thing, I really did. Inhaled peace, exhaled conflict. And then I got out of the car and screamed at one of the idiots who'd left their car. At first he was nonplussed, but after three weeks in France I know how they argue. Wagging my finger, refusing to back down, I walked him back to his car so we could continue driving to the pass. Right now I should mention the reason for that outburst (I'd like to say I feel bad about it, because I try to maintain an even strain, but it felt good to vent. Had to be done), wasn't just the traffic jam, or that I wanted to be on the course, or even that Austin and I had stayed out late and risen early, leaving me sleep-deprived. Fact was, the Volvo was almost out of gas. We'd left L'Alpe D'Huez with a quarter tank and with the best intentions of filling up at the bottom of the mountain but, you know, we got talking and then the scenery was so gorgeous and it felt good to be driving an old country road with the music up loud. We just forgot, or chose not to pay attention. And we didn't remember again until that long, long traffic jam, when all of a sudden the gas gauge was showing empty. A moment to discuss today's stage. It's going to be another brutal day in the saddle for the riders. There are four major climbs (the descent of the Col de la Croix-de-Fer is also notable, by the way. Only a guy with a very big set can navigate those narrow, crumbling roads, with their sheer drop-offs, tight hairpin turns, and utter lack of guardrails), and another mountain top finish, the ten-mile ascent of the scenic, tree-lined La Toussuire). Landis will be attacked early and often by the other teams. Look for a Mickael Rasmussen or a Levi Leipheimer to attack. The point is to put Landis on the defensive, but I just don't see him feeling threatened by anyone but Cadel Evans, Andreas Kloden and Denis Menchov. By the time Austin and I got on the course, running out of gas was not a matter of if, but when. It was very clear that the tank would go bone dry on some remote stretch of mountain highway, dozens of miles from a gas station. Most likely, we would be blocking the actual Tour de France course. As I began to ponder the logistics of pushing a station wagon on a goat road, we descended the Col de la Croix-de-Fer in neutral, one eye on the gas gauge and the other on the vertical drop-offs just inches off the side of the road. There was no gas to be had in St. Solin-d'Arves, a town without a gas station. We went house to house, asking if someone would allow us to buy some of their private stash (if such things existed). Finally, a nice family awaiting the Tour by barbecuing out in front of ther house, offered to let us siphon some diesel from their car. The hose was too wide by far to get proper suction, though Austin and I took turns trying. (I don't think I need to give you a compelling visual of how all this looked, but I will say that Austin remarked that he felt like a porn queen when all was said and done, and I understood completely what he was talking about. Let's just say I'm glad there wasn't a camera around). The hose was a bust. All we got were lungs full of Benzene. The family let us wash our hands in their kitchen, rinse the benzene out of our mouths with some almonds and a sip of white wine, and we were on our way. The next gas station was thirty miles and the Col de Glandon mountain pass away, but we had to get there. Saying a desperate prayer, I turned the key in the ignition, shifted the Volvo into neutral, and we coasted down the mountain, waving good-bye to our new friends and their siphon hose as we went. Just pulled into La Toussuire, where the riders will finish today's stage. The final climb is steep at the start, entirely flat in the center of the mountain, and then cants sharply upward to the finish area in this ski resort. It's another lovely mountain afternoon, but the clouds are already rolling in. By the time the riders get here around five, it might be a little wet. By the way, we made the gas station. Talk to you later.

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Meet the New Boss

Posted by MDugard Jul 19, 2006

Today marked the first time in this year's Tour that a possible winner showed himself. Floyd Landis didn't win today's stage (that would be Frank Schleck of Team CSC, who had to be talked out of quitting cycling a few years ago), but he owned it. Last year I wrote that Landis was still a few years away from winning his first Tour de France. I don't think that's the case anymore. Clearly, Landis is capable of winning now. Floyd Landis rode, in the words of none less than Lance Armstrong, a very smart race today. Controlling the tempo and pace, knowing when to let lesser riders break away and whom to watch closely, Landis showed that he's in control of this bike race. "I think of bike racing as a tactical sport," said Landis. "Today I rode tactically."That he did. Riding most of the day in a group that included top contenders Andreas Kloden, Cadel Evans, and Denis Menchov, Landis rarely appeared to be working very hard at all. Even during the final, brutal ascent of the L'Alpe D'Huez, Landis controlled the rhythm of the race. Part of that comes with being the favorite -- the other riders are all watching him now, checking to see what he's up to -- part comes from Landis's ability to counter even the slightest attack, and then there was the simple fact that he never seemed to be working hard. But that was all part of the game. "I'm a very good actor," Landis said, making it clear that he was suffering. But while the Russian Menchov was gasping for air, mouth open wide like a bass, looking very much like the Cold War Boris Badinov caricature of what a Russian should look like, Landis made small talk with other riders now and then. His face was impassive and he didn't seem to be breathing hard. All in all, it was a great performance. That performance continued after the stage. Under a threatening gray sky I wandered through the finish area, where individual riders were being tended to by their team doctors and athletic trainers. The scene resembled a trauma unit: Kloden was folded over his bike like a piece of limp origami, barely able to breathe; Oscar Pereiro, who had lost the yellow jersey to Landis by just ten seconds, was drenched in sweat and road grime, barely able to stand; and, Menchov, who lost another minute to Landis in the overall rankings, was thoroughly destroyed. After most stages, the riders simply keep pedaling their bikes back to the team car, but these guys weren't going to be pedaling anywhere. Hard to believe they have to race 112 miles and climb four major mountain roads in the morning. Meanwhile, Landis was safely out of the public eye, sequestered behind the inflatable gray amphitheater where the yellow jersey is awarded each day. His wife, Amber, in a bold move, slipped past security to be with him. She was giddy with delight at his performance (and something of a pro in busting a move past the Tour's vaunted security detail). And while Landis had put on a brave face after the stage, giving his bike to a Phonak acolyte and joking with the crowds, he was a different man once he knew the competition couldn't see him. Landis sat on the steps leading up into the podium's back entrance. At first he sat with his head in his hands, and then he just leaned forward and rested his upper body against his knees. Landis looked exhausted, like he could have fallen to sleep in an instant. The mood around here is that the race is Landis's to lose. But so many things can go wrong. For starters, he had a terrible cough during the post-race press conference. Though Landis was clear-eyed and articulate, he had to stop several times to hack. Whether there's something in his lungs or not, only Landis knows, but that's the sort of thing that can steal energy and competitive efficiency. You'd better believe that other teams will try to capitalize on that soon. They know that Landis's legs are cooked after today, and will send lesser riders out to attack, hoping to find a ***** in Landis's armor. I left the Landis press conference at about six, then wandered down through the finish corridor on my way back to the pressroom. The crowds were all headed for the restaurants and bars, and with thunderstorms threatening, everyone seemed to be in a hurry to find shelter. Plus, it had been a long and exciting day of racing. We were all pretty wrung out. Just then I bumped into Austin, who told me Lance Armstrong was holding a press conference in a hotel near the press center. It was to be a small affair, invitation only, and we were on the list. How could I not go?But all the while, waiting in a small upstairs room for Lance to appear, I kept wondering why he had come to France. The room was warm, and the handful of TV lights combined with the various bodies to make the room a little claustrophobic. If you happen to watch the interview tonight on OLN, you may also notice a picture of a winter landscape behind Lance's head. However, that was not the original painting/poster behind Lance's head. The original picture behind Lance was a cute painting of three squirrels next to a pine tree. Apparently it portrayed a bad image, so the squirrels were removed. I digress. Even though Lance is just a year removed from his latest Tour victory, anytime a retired athlete returns to the scene of his glory it's a little discomfiting. Think of Dennis Quaid in "Everyone's All-American." Anyway, so I asked Lance why he had come back. Just put it out there. I think he knew that someone was going to ask that question, because his answer was pretty good. He said that he came back because he's part-owner of the team, and that he's a fan of cycling and the Tour de France. Lance also said that he doesn't regret in the slightest that remark he made about the French soccer team. And he thought that the French tabloid headline "Welcome to France, *******" that ran in Monday's Paris papers was pretty funny. I have to say that it was good to see Lance here, because he was solid and relaxed and a lot different than during the tension of the 2005 Tour. He's bulked up a bit, because he's added swimming and kayaking, so don't expect him to make a miracle comeback. He looked -- and I know this isn't the best term, but it was the first thought that came into my mind -- like a grown-up. So now it's absolutely pouring here on top of the mountain. Wind is blowing the rain sideways and there's a fair amount of thunder and lightning. I wandered over here to the pressroom from the hotel more than eight hours ago, when the sun was shining. Having neglected to bring a raincoat or jacket of any kind, please know that I will be running at full speed the mile from here back to the Club Med. OK. Tomorrow. Floyd's in yellow, with a two-minute lead over his top rivals (Menchov, Evans, Kloden). As difficult as today was, tomorrow will see even more climbing and yet another mountaintop finish. Bourg D'Oisans, the start site, is here at the base of L'Alpe D'Huez, so basically everyone who watched the stage today has relocated to a spot down there. I would imagine it's a little bit boisterous at the moment. For those of you who've written to ask, yes, I finally found a place that sold running socks. Talk to you tomorrow.

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